Poetry International Poetry International
“I listen and proceed accordingly”

Strange Cocktail: an interview with Adriana X. Jacobs

cover illus. by Keren Katz
August 12, 2018
Strange Cocktail is the intriguing title of a book by Adriana X. Jacobs, an associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at Oxford whose poetry translations may be found on PIW, among other venues. In the book, which has just been published, Jacobs examines the dynamic role of translation in work by four 20th century Hebrew poets. Her use of David Wills’ concept of ‘prosthesis’ in a discussion of Avot Yeshurun may surprise. In the interview below, conducted via email, Jacobs, who is trilingual, was asked about how she chooses texts to translate; she carefully explained an instance in which she refused, when Hebrew language irony appears to turn into false sincerity in English. Jacobs discusses how she treats prosody, and regarding mistakes, she notes the difference between error and interpretation. Refreshingly, the poet-scholar says about the results of her craft, “I have no idea what the final translation will be like.”
Q: When you encounter a Hebrew poem, how do you know you like or dislike it?

A: I don’t read Hebrew poetry with an eye to translating it. I know that this isn’t what you are asking, but it’s necessary to state this because liking a Hebrew poem and wanting to translate a Hebrew poem don’t necessarily overlap for me. That being said, I can’t translate a poem that I don’t like and I like many poems that I don’t want to translate. I teach Hebrew literature for a living so it is imperative that I keep a very open mind and read, teach and write about works from a wide range of schools and styles, even if I am not in love with them. I’m drawn to poems that are transgressive, idiosyncratic, broken, messy and weird.

I love poems that are self-reflexive, that do interesting things with prosody, that are fragmented and disjointed in their languages and forms, multilingual and translational poems (for example, Kim Hyesoon [in Don Mee Choi’s translation], Alejandra Pizarnik, Anne Carson, Joyelle McSweeney, Claudia Rankine). This is the kind of poetry that I typically translate.  If you look at the list of poets I have translated – Anna Herman, Vaan Nguyen, Hezy Leskly, Efrat Mishori—the common thread is that they are not “straightforward” poets. I prefer a “bent” poetry, poems that “stand on the broken-down washing machine and speak/ in the language of the sock that caused/ the breakdown” (Hezy Leskly, “Poetry,” my translation).

Q: What factors cause you to decide not to translate a particular work?

A: What I describe above explains why I struggled to translate the two Natan Zach poems that you sent me ('I Saw a White Bird' and 'Second Bird'). You initially proposed that we translate these poems and use them as a way of framing the interview. But, ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t translate them. Birds are a pervasive trope in poetry, and while Hebrew poetry has given us some stellar bird poems (e.g., Chaim Nachman Bialik, Lea Goldberg, Erez Biton), invoking birds in a poem risks cliché. Zach is deploying these bird-figures as part of deliberately 'naive' and sentimental poetics, a radical pose for an Israeli poet in the late 1960s.

'Second Bird' in particular is a classic ars poetica, the kind of poem that usually captures my attention, but as I translate it into English, much of what makes the poem work begins to fall apart. The rhyme is incredibly facile, which is intentional and ironic in the Hebrew but comes across as too sincere in my English. Zach is making it clear that he knows how to craft aesthetically pleasing poems. His use of rhyme distracts us from this irony and opens a space where something radical and transgressive can push through. When Zach writes that he will not see this beautiful bird again or repeat “words of peace”, he is replacing one kind of lyric (sentimental) for another (ironic) better suited to the contemporary moment. At the same time, the act of reading his poem and translating it ensures that this sentimental, naive lyric is never really dead.

In Chava Alberstein’s stunning rendition of this poem [link below], she sings the entire poem twice, thereby making it clear that she is rejecting the poem’s declaration of defeat. Even Zach returns in subsequent collections to this kind of lyric, its tropes and cliches, because he is a poet, and poets, across many languages, times and places have undertaken the challenge of renewing the currency of familiar, well-worn tropes.

Reading these poems in Hebrew, I instantly put them in a certain cultural and historical context – Hebrew literature of the 1960s, the politics of the post-Statehood period, debates concerning Hebrew poetry and its claims to contemporaneity – and the poem buzzes in this space. But its charge diffuses as I translate it – I feel the poem “straighten” out and Zach’s irony turn to sincerity. That’s on me as a translator but part of being a good translator is knowing when you and the poem you are translating are not a good fit.

Q: How important are rhyme and meter to you, in the original, and the translation?

A: Recently, on Twitter, the poet and translator Johannes Goranssön made a really salient observation about translation. He noted, “I want to believe that rather than impose a method on what I translate, I listen to the text I translate and proceed accordingly” (July 31, 2018). I love this idea of translation as listening and cite it here as a way of addressing your question about prosody.  For the past decade, I have been translating the poet Anna Herman who writes a great deal of rhymed and metered poetry. Herman herself has said that rhyme and meter are the breath and pulse of a poem, and I keep this in mind when translating her. I don’t have a natural ear for meter but maybe because of that, I pay closer attention to it, to make sure I’m not missing something that the poet is doing.

Translating Herman, but also studying and reading poets like Lea Goldberg (for whom prosody was so important), has helped me develop my ear, but it’s also done something more—it’s made me a more attentive reader and translator of poetry in general. When I read a poem, rhymed or not, I don’t stick it into a single category. The sonnet is not one-size-fits-all—each sonnet is doing something different. Same goes for blank or free verse poems. And this carries over into my translations –if I am translating a poem that is rhymed and metered, I acknowledge this and pay attention to the kind of work that the prosody is doing. I note the connections, disjunctures, distractions and flows. And while I may not produce a rhymed and metered poem in the end, I do try to bring this work over.

Q: In Kate Briggs’s book-length essay on translation, This Little Art (2017, Fitzcarraldo Editions) she writes about being told “If you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t do translations” and later adds, “It has to be possible...to query and vary each other’s decisions, holding to or elaborating alternative measures of precision and care, without quarrelling, necessarily, or policing. And without shaming? This, it seems, is less clear.” What is your thinking about the mistakes of others, and the possibility of making them when translating poetry?  

A: First, I am so delighted that you include this quote from Briggs’s book. I read This Little Art a few months ago and really loved it. It speaks so clearly and intimately about the experience of translating a literary text.  Her observations on 'mistakes' and how they happen and how they are received really stand out in this book; they touch on one of the most sensitive areas of translation for both readers and translators. 

As a translator, I do my best to avoid language comprehension mistakes, and I mean the kind of mistakes that creep in when you’ve misunderstood a grammatical element or the intended semantic meaning. I feel pretty confident in my language comprehension skills, but occasionally I have asked a native speaker to look over a translation and reassure me that no explicit errors have crept in. But when I do this, I set very clear expectations – I am only interested in errors and not in disputing my interpretation of a text.

Of course, the line between a 'error' and 'interpretation' often blurs. I’m reminded of Idra Novey’s wonderful translations of the Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto. In her translation of his poem, ‘Prior Evening’ (Véspera) she replaces his “sanduíche” (sandwich) with a “plum tart”.  I heard her once describe how in these instances what is most important is retaining the 'pleasure' of the text, and in this case, the rhyme scheme. It really works, in my view, but I’m sure someone read it and thought it was a mistake. Last year, I was reading a lot of Marianne Moore and was struck by how relentlessly she revised her work, rejecting the very idea of the original as a static and singular text. 

Karen Emmerich writes about this as well in her wonderful monograph Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (2017, Bloomsbury), where she notes that “the ‘source,’ the presumed object of translation, is not a stable idea, not an inert gas but a volatile compound that experiences continual textual reconfigurations” (2).  I never think of my translations as 'finished' texts. I tinker with them endlessly, and in so doing, I feel like I am taking part in a long and necessary tradition of unsettling the very notion of a single, unchanging original.  

Q: How important is (perceived) content (not necessarily what is said in a propositional sense, but something about the semantic fields, the suggestions, an element of surprise or the lack of it)? How do you deal with creating the (in a sense new) content of the translated poem? Are you consciously aware as you work, or after the fact?

A: When I translate, I proceed with some understanding of what the poem is 'about' in both an explicit and implicit sense. But beyond that, I have no idea what the final translation will be like. The process is a surprise and full of surprises. I don’t impose an order on it. I am drawn to poetry that pushes me out of my comfort zone, and my goal is to create that experience for those reading my translations, but the strategies by which I achieve that will differ from poem to poem.

I came to Hebrew rather late (I was in my early twenties.), and I remember very clearly the experience of 'translating in my head' when I first started studying the language. As I became more fluent in Hebrew, this kind of translation was no longer necessary but the relation between Hebrew and English continued to be binary for me.  One day, I came across Anna Herman’s poem 'Mmmhmm', [link below] and as I was reading it, I heard the first line of the poem very clearly in English. This felt like a different kind of translation.  The English that I was hearing in my head was coming from a different place, from that zone where my own writing happens. It’s the only way I can explain it. This was by no means my first translation of a Hebrew poem but I understood then that the binary had been disrupted.  Not all translations are 'channeled' in this way, and it still took several years to complete a translation of this poem that felt right to me, but I overcame a years-long plateau that day.

Q: In the introduction to your book, you write about “an understanding of poetry that is fundamentally relational”. What do you mean by “relational”? Some poets know more than one language, or move around or emigrate, or read widely, or read some poetry in translation. Might not the development of most poetries be considered “relational”? Is Hebrew poetry really that different?

A: I take the idea of relation from Édouard Glissant’s marvelous book Poetics of Relation (1990/1997), as well as Adrienne Rich’s reading of this text in her 2007 essay “Poetry and Commitment”. For Glissant, a poetics of relation (or Relation, as he puts it) is rhizomatic, nomadic and translational. When we approach poetry in terms of relation, we allow for possibility of 'decategorizing' it, of unmooring it from a canonical order. The part you quoted is part of a paragraph where I set out the aims of the book within the contexts of Hebrew literary scholarship, and the reception and study of Hebrew poetry.

The kind of poetic mobility that you describe may be obvious to those of us who work on poetry, but the relations that a poet draws across languages, places and time periods may be muted or erased outright to fit a particular order (one that excludes women, for example). In my book, I bring together four poets who are not typically read together and am able to do so because of the emphasis that I give to translation. I was interested in offering a configuration that I had not seen before, one that placed the poet-translator at the center and thereby imagined a different way of mapping an academic book on Hebrew poetry.  At the very end of the book, I refer to this grouping as a 'constellation', because at that point even the idea of a 'center' felt too attached to a kind of canonical thinking. The book, in that respect, preserves my own wrestling with the language of Order.
Q: In your book you discuss many metaphors for poetry translation and their implicit normative judgments. I was struck by your use of the concept of prosthesis in your discussion of Avot Yeshurun:
In his 1995 book Prosthesis, Wills, who has translated Derrida into English, describes the prosthetic aesthetic in terms that blur any distinction between translation and writing: “the writing of prosthesis . . . is inevitably caught in a complex play of displacements; prosthesis being about nothing if not placement, displacement, replacement, standing, dislodging, substituting, setting, amputating, supplementing.”

You also refer to Homi Bhabha’s in-between:

The "in-between" remains a productive location for twentieth-century and contemporary poets and translators, for whom it is hardly a static, “neutral” space, but rather a zone of transformative, transgressive, and transhistoric relation and movement.

As you point out, the image of an in-between space falsely implies that the translator is outside of culture. You grew up in the US (with an early knowledge of Spanish, which you studied abroad?), studied Hebrew in the US and Israel and now teach in the UK. How would you situate yourself and your space(s)?  

A: Spanish is actually my first language, which I spoke exclusively until I was five years old. My mother is from Ecuador and spoke Spanish at home, so I continued to speak Spanish with her throughout my childhood and later studied Spanish-language literature in college. The two passages you quote encompass two tropes of translation – the prosthetic and the hyphen.  By the time I got to college (in the mid-1990s), the idea of a 'hyphenated identity' was already in circulation in cultural studies. In those years, the hyphen represented a bridge and translation a mode of passage and crossing over, but I also experienced the hyphen as a rope in a game of identity tug-of-war. I went to Chile for my junior year abroad and there I encountered Hebrew, and with it the possibility of moving beyond this hyphen, even if it meant fracturing my relationship to English and Spanish, which had been so central to my identity until that point. When I read Wills’s Prothesis years later, I finally could articulate what Hebrew had made possible. Learning Hebrew had put into motion a “complex play of displacements” and it is in that zone that I situate myself today.

Chava Alberstein sings Natan Zach
Anna Herman’s poem 'Mmmhmm'
Zach: two bird poems
© Lisa Katz
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Hendrik Muller fonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère